In recent years, and more intensively since the March general election, Walla, Israel’s most popular website, has become a public relations platform for the Netanyahu family. Articles critical of the prime minister are spiked or buried within the site, caustic headlines are censored or softened, and positive items about Sara Netanyahu are promoted and accompanied by flattering photos.
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It would seem that this groveling before the primary decision maker and his family is not a matter of ideology, but rather one of obvious crony capitalism. Walla! is owned by the Bezeq telecommunications monopoly, which is controlled by businessman Shaul Elovitch. Since winning the election Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also the minister of communications, approved the purchase by Bezeq (owned by Elovitch) of the shares in satellite television provider Yes that it did not already own, from Eurocom (also controlled by Elovitch), for 680 million shekels ($180 million) in the first stage. Netanyahu will soon decide on an even more explosive issue that relates to Elovitch’s business: the future, and mainly the implementation, of reforms to the landline telephony market, Bezeq’s prime source of income.
The previous communications minister, Gilad Erdan, signed regulations requiring Bezeq to sell landline services to its competitors at rates supervised by regulators, a move aimed at significantly reducing consumers’ phone bills. Since then Bezeq has been doing all it can to evade the decree, or at least improve the terms. Each day the reform is delayed, Bezeq makes a bundle and the public pays too much for service. But Netanyahu has put off the reform, and the telecommunications market is betting that the new minister will seek a compromise that will benefit Bezeq and undermine the original reform plan.
In an investigative report by Gidi Weitz that appeared in Haaretz, it emerges that in instances where Walla! interfered with its employees’ freedom of expression, it was hinted that there’s a link between the PR services the site provides and the regulatory decisions the communications minister is to make. Sometimes they were told that the pro-Netanyahu bias was dictated by Elovitch.
Unraveling the ties and common interests between Netanyahu and the tycoon demands an examination by the gatekeepers, most prominently Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein. A robust democracy cannot permit a major news organization to be used by a magnate in return for regulatory favors.
Netanyahu’s few months as communications minister have proven to be dangerous for journalistic freedom and costly to the Israeli consumer. It would behoove him to appoint a communications minister who will work for the benefit of the public, and who might even close down the ministry and set up an independent communications authority instead.